Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Eight Month Watosversary

The cottage at the hostel that I share with two other students.

This Watsoversary coincides with the anniversary of exactly one month in Zambia. It makes it easy to measure my progress here, from my stressful and scrambling Lusaka arrival, to the majesty of the largest waterfall in the world. There were dusty Eastern Province hills followed by a return to the colorful but now manageable capital city. The last month has been filled with names and stories and campfires and group dinners. I measure the time that has passed every morning when I see how many malaria pills are left in the container.

This Watsoversary is the 2/3 mark of my year outside the United States. Time has suddenly started moving fast. The Future with a capital F has been weighing on my mind more. Going home feels less like a distant dream and more like something that will one day be a reality. At times the prospect makes me overjoyed and at other times it makes me miserable.

I’m starting to feel a bit of pressure as time goes on; all of a sudden I feel like I can’t make it up as I go along but have to ask myself what this year has amounted to, and more specifically, what these stories and writing amount to. On a fundamental level, I know that this year has amounted to quite a bit. I see that in the way I think, the way I treat myself, the way I relate to others. But that is all quite hard to explain. The tangible benefits of this year seem to slip through my grasp when people ask me what I plan to do next and how this will relate to it.

I think it’s going to be a challenge over the next four months not to think too much ahead; to try and forget that when I get back to the U.S. I have no idea what city I’ll be living in or what kind of job I’ll have (or what kind of job I even want to have), and that this year of freedom and exploration was a temporary thing. Applying for office jobs in east coast cities is now beginning to scare me more than the idea of moving to a capital city in southern Africa without knowing anyone.

But there’s a lot to come before then, and a lot that I don’t want to be overshadowed by thinking too much about what things will be like when I come back home. For now there’s the moment. There’s the fact that sun is streaming through my window and I’m lying in bed and posting this at an insanely early hour because I’m about to get on a bus to go to Kafue National Park for a safari. I don’t even really know what going on a safari entails. I was skyping with my friend Nathan the other night, and before we hung up, I told him to have a nice night and he told me to have a nice safari. And then we started hysterically laughing and couldn’t even talk more. Because what kind of people have we turned into that we can say to each other, “have a nice safari.” It’s ridiculous, really. It’s ridiculous that I’m here, it’s ridiculous that I’m doing this. Sometimes, I take a moment and step back and just start laughing, because I’m HERE. And I can’t quite believe it, even eight months later. Here’s to another four months of being here--wherever here is.

In the past month I have:

-Learned the correct protocol for eating nshima.

-Witnessed the beauty of Victoria Falls, one of the seven wonders of the world.

-Learned to identify giraffe droppings.

-Seen a herd of zebras outside an apartment building.

-Took a microlight flight. Panicked. Flew. Was struck with awe.

-Flown over Zimbabwe.

-Seen more rainbows than I’ve seen in the twenty-three years leading up to it (the end of rainy season combined with intense sun will do that for you).

-Swam in the Zambezi River.

-Drunk high tea on Livingstone Island

-Waited in line to see the 2012 African Cup of Nations

-Stepped in hippo tracks.

-Watched wildebeests and wild boars (animals that I had previously thought were fictional).

-Bought a soccer jersey to celebrate the victory of Zambia’s Chipolopolo boys.

-Figured out how to navigate the Lusaka minibus system.

-Learned a few phrases in Nyanja.

-Drank Zambian grown coffee.

-Incorporated the South African word “braii” into my vocabulary and my belly.

-Darkened my Chaco sandal tan lines to a ridiculous degree.

-Bought three colorful chitenjes and wandered my way around markets.

-Visited Zambia’s Eastern Province.

-Ridden in the back of a pickup truck. Fallen in love with traveling this way.

-Celebrated an Irish St. Patrick’s Day, Zambian style.

-Experienced Lusaka nightlife, for better or worse.

-Begun responding to the name Mzungu.

-Eaten avocados and papayas off a tree in the yard.

-Learned the meanings and stories behind many Zambian names.

-Worked with (and paid) my first research assistant of the year.

-Taught people of eight different nationalities how to make s’mores.

-Gotten through several days without water and/or power and learned to cope.

-Listened to this beautiful thing on repeat:

2/3 down, 1/3 to go.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Name Post: A History of Floating Names

Mary, Levis, and Edwin in Ng'ombe

I recently wrote about how names in Zambia are often a product of timing. Names are often chosen to express what is going on for a family at the time of the child’s birth but they can also be names that honor an ancestor from the past, or names that reflect a hope for the future. I recently learned about the Bemba name, Kalonde, which means “garden hoe”, for example. It is usually given to the first son in a family with the hope that, like a garden hoe, he will be able to help his family cultivate the land in future years.

I’m realizing that because names come to represent a specific time, be it past, present or future, it is not unusual for them to change throughout people’s lives. There is a lack of permanence and formality about names here; a baby may be called something and then as a child refuse the name and choose a new one. I find if I am taking notes and ask someone how their name is spelled, they often provide me with a few options. A name is a name.

I think the use of multiple names increased (or began) when Europeans arrived in Zambia in the mid 19th century. I’ve found in several of the countries I’ve been to this year that have histories of colonization, there is often a history of renaming.

Levis, my research assistant, recently spoke to me more about the introduction of English names in Zambia. He told me that for a long time, in village churches that were run by missionaries, they wouldn’t baptize babies with African names. He said it was because missionaries wanted names that they themselves could pronounce, and names that were from the bible.

For a long time, in many parts of Zambia, this meant that your child had to have an English name if you wanted them to be baptized. Levis told me that in many places, spiritual rationales aside, not being baptized had tangible consequences. He told me that when there wasn’t enough to go around, missionaries and aid workers would give materials and supplies to people in the villages who were connected to a church, and to the children who were baptized. Levis told me that if a child wasn’t baptized, it would be noticeable; he wouldn’t have the same clothes or supplies that the other children had, and as Levis put it, he would be the laughing stock of the village.

I asked Levis if this meant a certain generation only had English names and he told me that often people were given English names and names from their family’s tribe. He used the name Kalumba, which is Bemba for “lightning”, as an example. He told me that when Kalumba was baptized, his parents would need to pick an alternative name for him, like Andrew. This meant that Kalumba was baptized as Andrew, and most likely would be Andrew at school (especially because many of the first schools in Zambia were funded by English-speaking aid workers or missionaries), but he would be Kalumba at home. “He’ll be Andrew on paper,” Levis told me, “But he’ll also be Kalumba. Kalumba will be floating.”

Today Kalumba could be baptized as Kalumba, but having multiple names (particularly one “English name” and one “African name”) is very common. One thing I’m finding is that because the pressure to name babies after family members is so strong here, often English names are being passed on in families in honor of grandparents who lived at a time in Zambia when only English names were encouraged.

Women's booth at a crafts fair in Lusaka.

There are a lot of other reasons why many Zambians today go through life with multiple names. I’m learning there are often discrepancies about who in the family has the right to name the child, and often this problem is solved by giving the child more than one. I met a nine year-old in Ng’ombe last week who was Leah, Elena or Jocelyn, depending on who was talking to her. At school, she goes by Jocelyn and at home she’s mainly Leah. Her father had decided on Leah, but when his mother came to visit, she insisted the baby’s name should be Elena. When his wife’s mother came to visit, she argued for Leah.

[Side note: In case you’re curious after my earlier post about names and sibling groups, Leah/Elena/Jocelyn has three siblings: Mary (named after her grandmother), Boyd/Mapenze (Boyd from his father’s late brother and Mapenze, meaning “problems” in Tonga), and Limpo (meaning “gift” in Lozi. I spent most of my time with this family joking about the sibling rivalry that I believed was bound to enuse when you name one child “Problems” and another one “Gift.” ]

Levis, Edwin & Mitchey (parents to Mary, Boyd/Mapenze, Leah/Elena/Jocelyn and Limpo), and Mary.

In some tribes, there are clear cut rules about who gets to name the baby. I’ve found that most often the father has the responsibility of naming the first baby, the mother the second baby, and if there are more children, the mother and father alternate or open it up to grandparents and friends to suggest names. For Tongas, it is very common to leave the name up to grandparents. In the Bemba tradition, the father takes on full responsibility for naming the children. As Levis, a proud Bemba man put it, “The father is responsible for the blood that runs through the veins of the children.” (Levis has also extended this rule to his wife, Mary, who he insists on calling Maria).

Sometimes these discrepancies are subtle; a child may be called an affectionate nickname by his mother while his father calls him by his more formal school name. One woman, Sahzi, told me that she’s heard of families where the parents separate and once the father is gone, the mother will rename all the children with names that she prefers.

I’ve learned that most of these name changes happen before age sixteen. Sixteen is the age when citizens of Zambia are issued a National Residency card. When babies are born, birth certificates aren’t given in the hospital. Instead, once the baby is a few months old, parents who want it can pay the appropriate authorities for a birth certificate. This means that a lot of Zambian babies and children don’t have formal documentation and the National Residency card at age sixteen carries a lot of weight.

Another popular time for name changes are when children start school (age seven in Zambia). The idea that there will suddenly be some kind of documentation of names causes a lot of people to think about what names they want for their children long-term. I met one man who was called Samson until he turned five and his Dad decided he should be Nelson instead. Leah/Jocelyn/Elena had to choose who to be at school, and this might be the moment when Kalumba becomes Andrew in his daily life.

Though these are the common times for name changes, they can happen at anytime. I met a man who changed his name because he met a football player he liked. I met one man who had an African name but changed his name to Joseph so he’d be taken seriously in his church. Some people in Zambia still believe that if a baby cries too much it is because he is rejecting his name.

Floating names are not only a Zambian thing. When I was in Bali, there were a lot of similarities with formal verses informal names, with traditional names and English names, and with name changes throughout one’s life. In the states, a woman who goes by Katherine in writing may be more commonly known by her floating name of Katie. What is interesting to me in Zambia about floating names, however, is that they are so imbued with politics and history and value.

Today Kalumba can be baptized as Kalumba. He can be Kalumba at school. But I think a lot of parents are still giving their children names like Andrew because there is a fear that Kalumba’s voice might not be heard; that in a place where writing counts more than oral history, where desks are often paid for by aid groups in the western world, where you sit and learn about colonization and slavery and oppression, they fear that people at school might listen to Andrew more than they listen to Kalumba.

I like to think they’re not right, but I think they might be.

Names may be created equal, but they are not perceived equally. That’s part of the reason I want to try to capture these floating names. A lot of people in Zambia are figuring out how to merge their family’s traditions with a Zambian landscape that is rapidly changing; asking if their grandmother’s herbal remedies have a place in a modern hospital; if witchcraft can live side by side with Christianity; if their chitenjes can be worn on top of their jeans.

Names fit these dichotomies but I think they can also merge the two. Andrew/Kalumba may have to choose who he wants to be in certain contexts, and he may be perceived differently depending on this choice, but what is remarkable to me is that he IS them both. He is an example of how these categories can merge. Having multiple names is not a contradiction in Zambia. Instead, the names you hold add up to who you are, they show the pieces you have within yourself--your grandmother’s insistence on the name Elena, your father’s Tonga heritage, your baptized ancestors, a moment in time—carrying these names in your person, and with them these histories, before they float away.

Bucket fight. (Leah/Jocelyn/Elena is in pink, on the right).

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mzungu Musings

I pay more attention to the sky here. At night we gather by the pool and try to remember the names of constellations. Here, Orion looks sideways to me and the dippers are hard to find. Every evening I wish that I had paid more attention when were doing astronomy in elementary school.

The sunsets are stunning every single night and we try to find the perfect sundowners to watch them from. We all return to the hostel after days of research and errands and long walks and rooftop climbs. “I found the best sundowner today,” We say.

My days here begin when light streams through my window. I lift the white mosquito net canopy and pin it above my bed. I put water on to boil to make instant coffee, cringing every time. I eat my toast outside. My feet are dirty by nine am. We discovered a praying mantis in the toilet yesterday.

Some mornings we’ll go on outings to the nearby American-style shopping malls for a cappuccino and grocery shopping. Some mornings I’ll do my washing in an outdoor sink and hang clothes on the line. After nearly eight months of frequent wear, my jeans are beginning to fall apart.

Some mornings I will read a novel or write lengthy e-mails to friends or try to figure out logistics for my last two project countries At night we’ll often cook together and tell stories from the day; our own little family of young travelers floating around southern Africa. Some nights we’ll walk in a big group to nearby restaurants. I get hopelessly lost here. Most houses in the neighborhood are surrounded by huge walls and security signs. Some of them have barbed wire and broken beer bottles at the top to prevent people from climbing over. Beware of Dogs is scrawled with spray paint on the gates. The streets all look the same to me; It is hard to remember landmarks when they are all enclosed behind light brown barriers. We laugh uncomfortably when we walk by prostitutes on the street corners. There is no Red Light District in Lusaka, instead, there are a few women who stand on corners in the more well to do neighborhoods. They start at 7pm.

Lately, people have been asking me how I spend my days here, and these are things that are consistent.

Some days, I leave the walled-in area of urban sprawl where I am living and go into the outskirts of the city: the compounds. I go with Levis, my research assistant, or Tina and Sahzi, two women who work at the hostel. I visit Garden and Ng’ombe and they are a jumble of color and people. There is color in the endless advertisements painted on walls, the fruits and vegetables on the side of the road, the litter that covers the sidewalk, the women’s chitenjes. It smells of the small dried fish for sale and of burning trash. It makes my eyes water.

In the compounds I have a different name. My name means the color of my skin. As soon as I arrive children begin a chorus of “mzungu” or address me directly, “Hello mzunugu,” they say. Once I stopped at a stall selling vegetables and a woman called to the owner, “Come quick, mzungu at your shop.” Another woman asked to touch my hair.

Some children fall over laughing when they look at me. Others turn away in fear. Most of them stare, wide eyed, and I want to know what is going through their minds. “Hellohowareyou” the braver ones say, practicing what they have memorized at school. Mzungu is not only a title, something that describes me; people also use it as my name. Yesterday, on the way home from Ng’ombe, a minibus driver turned to me. “Mzungu, I would like your telephone number.”

“I would like you to concentrate on your driving.”

When I am Mzungu, it is assumed that I speak English. It is assumed I have a lot of money. It is assumed I will walk around the compounds and then leave and never come back. It is assumed that I shop at the western style shopping malls on the other side of town. It is assumed that where I come from there is no corruption and no HIV and no nshima. It is assumed that when someone asks “How are you?” I will respond, “Fine,” because that is the mzungu answer to a mzungu question.

I go to the houses that Levis or Sahzi or Tina tell me to go to. I try to absorb it all; the bright sunlight, the wooden stools brought for me to sit on, the darkness inside the stone houses, the chickens’ feet soaking in a bowl, a boy in an Obama t-shirt, a bicycle accident, a baby who sees with only one eye. Sometimes people say things to me that Levis and Sahzi and Tina do not translate.

There is a lot we do not talk about.

Sometimes when I go to these houses I want to lie about why I’m there. “I’m here to talk about water,” I want to say. Or about food. Or sickness, or money, or work. About anything but names.

There are moments when I want to believe we find ways to connect. When this divided city feels a little more whole. After I talk to families for a while about my research, they tend to enjoy it when I take out my digital camera and show them what they look like on it. People like it when I try to speak Nyanja. And, while it may feel insignificant, people like it when they get to talk about children’s names. I like listening.

I do not really mind the name Mzungu. In some ways, I like how direct people are about racial differences; it feels more honest than covering them up, like we often do in the U.S.

But while I don’t mind the name, being mzungu is exhausting. Especially after nearly eight months of being mzungu in places where I stick out.

Sometimes when I walk away from these houses, I wonder what is being said about me. I wonder what these conversations about names and meanings and traditions might amount to—for me and for them. I wonder if when I leave they will walk over and tell their neighbors, in Nyanja or Bemba or Tonga, “A muzungu lady came to the house today.”

I can’t help but hope, selfishly and optimistically and desperately, that one day they might say, “Today I met Nell.”

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Name Post: The Victims of Our Titles

Lusaka at dusk.

Whenever you’re doing research for an extended period of time on one subject or another, there are moments of doubt. There have been many days this year when I’ve been lucky enough to have conversations that confirm the significance of the work I’m doing, but maybe just as many days where I have to remind myself why I’m studying this and why I think it's important. I've come to realize, however, that regardless of how I'm feeling about my topic, I am consistently grateful for having a purpose. Instead of just traveling around and being a tourist in all of these different countries, studying names gives me a way of trying to understand what and who I’m surrounded by. It gives me a reason to talk to people. It gives me a way into a place.

I’m at the halfway point of my time in Zambia and I’ve been trying hard to figure out just what the significance of names is here. It’s clear that they are significant, but it’s been difficult to pinpoint specific motivations and trends surrounding them. There are so many different languages, tribes and traditions that it’s hard to make any kind of generalizations about how people in Zambia choose names. The one overarching thread that I have found, however, regardless of who I talk to, is that in Zambia, just as my own research can act as a way into a place, names can act as a way into a time.

When I shared Ndaniso’s story last week, I explained that in Zambia names often reflect the circumstances that the baby’s family finds themselves in. (As one Zambian man I talked to put it, “names are happenings.”) They become a kind of shared memory.

This picture was hanging up in the preschool in Eastern Zambia and was made by a four year-old named Memory Mwale

In the United States I think we tend to think of names as indicative of taste or style. Because of this, I’m often surprised when I hear a group of siblings’ names in Zambia; it would not be unusual to find a “Dalitso” (“blessing” in Chewa), a “Jonathan”, and a “Fatness” in the same family. Over the last few days in Lusaka, when I’ve asked people about larger trends surrounding names or how they were chosen, I’m often met with blank stares. “A name is a name”, more than one person has told me.

I think what this means is that names are decided on a very individual basis and these names, ironically, often have little to do with the child who is being named. In the Eastern Province, there are a lot of children called “Mabvuto” which means problems. There are some children called “Misozi” which means tears. There are some children called “Chikondi” which means love. It is sometimes hard not to feel sorry for the children named after the hardships of their times, to feel that somehow in carrying these names, they must be weighed down. I recently also learned that these names are often ridiculed at school. When I got back to Lusaka, I asked Levis Masunda, a man who’s been helping me with my research about this. I wanted to know why parents would deliberately give their child a name that could be made fun of later on.

He told me the name isn’t really about the child. He told me that through the child’s name, parents show they’re conscious of their own suffering. “The name shows when the baby was born,” he told me. “It’s like a calendar. It refers to when they came onto the earth. Whether or not the child will be ridiculed doesn’t matter.”

The idea that names are a way into a time does not specify just what time. I’m learning that names can also represent generations past. Levis told me about the Bemba name, “Bwalya”, for example. He told me it literally means “last born.” I asked him how parents could be sure, when they named a baby Bwalya, that he or she would be the last born. He explained that most Bwalyas often are not. The name Bwalya isn’t chosen because the baby is expected to be the last born in their family, but most likely the name Bwalya indicates that the baby’s mother or father was the last born in his or her family. In other words, as the youngest in my family, I could name my baby Bwalya, meaning “last born” in MY honor, even if I didn’t think Bwalya himself would be the last born in his own family.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that in most western societies, when a baby is born, everything is definitively All About the Baby (with capital letters). Parents agonize over choosing names that will fit this baby throughout his or her life. In Zambia, names are generally chosen to reflect the time the baby was born into, even if that time is one of problems or tears. The baby is born into something bigger than herself, something that is already going on that she needs to fit into.

Perhaps the best way of explaining this further is to share the names and stories of some of the people I met in the Eastern Province last week. Outside of Petauke I sat down with several of the students at the pastor training college, many of whom had quite large families. We talked about their own names, about their children’s names, about where my research might take me, about why I wasn’t married yet. (One man told me it was because I didn’t know how to make nshima. “A woman who can’t make nshima won’t get married. The man worries he will starve.”)

Three of the students I spoke with at Covenent College (with Elijah) in the Lachmans' home.

Nelson was the chef at the college and I got to meet his six kids: Daines, Precious, Isaac, Eunice, Nelson and Moses. It was he who may have spelled things out the most comprehensively. He explained to me that most of the names of his children were names from his family. When missionaries first arrived in Zambia, they encouraged people to use English (and biblical) names. Because of this, English names have been passed down through his family for years. I asked him why he wanted to carry on the tradition of English names and he explained it to me like this, “If a person has died, you don’t want to lose the name. You need to remember them. Where you live,” he said, pointing at me, “You take some pictures. We can’t do that here. So we use names.”

One visiting lecturer named Cyrus told me about the names of his four kids: Isaac, Natasha, Chikondi and Irene. He told me Natasha was not taken from the popular European name but it actually translates to “I am thankful” in Bemba. Chikondi means “love” in Chewa.

It would probably be easier for me to study names in Zambia if there was less variation of names, even within the same families. But it would be far less interesting. I love that there are siblings named Chikondi and Irene, and there are no questions asked. In Nelson’s children’s names, multiple tribal groups are represented, multiple languages, multiple histories.

A man named Greenford told me that his father chose his name as a memory of his time in South Africa. His father had gotten a scholarship to go to university there and was amazed by the amount of green he saw around him. He was a city boy and delighted in seeing parks and trees and plants. It made such an impact on him that when his son was born, he wanted to name him something that reminded him of all the Green. Greenford himself has three kids with names that all come from his relatives: Jonathan, Samuel and Haswell.

Boatman, who helps Nelson in the kitchen, explained to me that he got his name because his father had been working in South Africa for a white man with the last name Boatman. His father liked his boss a lot and decided to name his son after him. Boatman himself has ten children: Philamon, Naomi, Eunice, Rebecca, Vasti, Yorodia, Paul, Malita, Judith and Gideon.

I rode through town with a pastor named Lovemore Banda, who informed me that his name is very common in Zimbabwe. (He was named in honor of his uncle, “Love”). He has six kids: Eunice, Vasti, Jackson, Joseph, Richard and Evelina. I had dinner with a man named Jethro who is father to Priscilla, Jethro, Zion, Elias, Martin, Dorica, Joshua and Eva. I talked to Wallace who has a David, Jennifer, Leah, Wallace and Elijah at home. Fastem, father to Dina, Monira, Fastem Jr., Moses, Francis, Friday, Isaac, Elias and Shadrick was also eager to talk. Fastem told me that he named his son “Friday” because Friday is the first day of a weekend of rest.

I love typing these names; I love the variety within each family and the stories behind them. I love that these long lists seem impossible to make sense of. At some point I have to just shrug and agree: a name is a name.


The other current Swarthmore Watson Fellow and friend of mine, Deivid, recently sent me a quote from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Ironically, I remembered reading this specific quote in my global literature seminar in Fall 2010 when I was just applying for the Watson Fellowship. Rushdie writes about India: “Our names contain our fates; living as we do in a place where names have not acquired the meaninglessness of the West, and are still more than mere sounds. We are also the victims of our titles.”

This quote might have been more appropriate to draw on when I was in India, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately here. While I disagree with Rushdie that names in the west are meaningless and can be reduced to “mere sounds”, I understand what he means by referring to names outside the west as “titles.” Babies named Bwalya come to represent their parents’ places within their own families, babies named Mabvuto come to represent their family’s struggles. These babies are bearing titles of hardship or of joy. Their names reflect the time they were born into.

I recently asked Levis about the influence of colonization on names in Zambia and he told me that English names started popping up here long before colonization, when the first missionaries arrived. He told me that many babies were born at mission hospitals and then named after the white doctors and nurses who delivered them. When I initially heard this, I saw it as a loss of tradition. I thought it was wrong that English names were now infiltrating the mix and beginning to replace these traditional titles.

These English names were, undoubtedly, a blow to the wide variety of Zambian cultures. But at the same time, I think the practice of naming after happenings was far from lost. The names of these mission doctors and nurses became a part of the story of this child coming into the world, and while these names may not be traditionally Zambian, they are a part of Zambia’s story. Names like John and Mary became titles for these Zambian babies, just as Mabvuto and Dalitso are. The babies became, as Rushdie put it, victims of their titles. This time they were victims of the continuing trend of globalization. They were born into something bigger than themselves. They were born into a happening.

Two friends (Balthazar and Shawn) on the roof of the hostel.